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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The Rhetoric of Oppression*

Umberto Eco, in his article, "The Wolf and the Lamb - The Rhetoric of Oppression" (from which the title to this article is borrowed), posits that often enough, an oppressor - such as a dictator - would try to legitimise his oppression. He or she will even try "to obtain the consensus of those he is oppressing, or to find someone who will justify it" by using "rhetorical arguments to justify his abuse of power."

(At this juncture, I would like to add to Eco's example of an oppressor. In addition to a dictator, I would add a "totalitarian democrat", who is a so called leader elected through a controlled democratic process. I would also add to the list what Rawls terms as the "benevolent absolutist").

The need for legitimisation of an act or acts of oppression, to my mind, stems from the desire to justify such acts  which in turn is driven by  purely egoistical motivation, or perhaps is due to a deep feeling of guilt. Added to that must be the desire to gain acceptance of the people and to pander to the middle class intellectual probing.

Whatever the reason for the attempt to legitimise, at the end of the day, the rhetoric of the oppressor, to the reasonable and probing minds, would often come  out as completely lame and curious - sometimes even ridiculous, stupid and laughable - babbles.

That is because of the nature of the oppressor. He is so used to getting and doing what he wants without so much of a necessity to justify any of his actions. He thus develop this inability to answer properly when questioned; to engage when called  to question; to debate when argued against.

The oppressor rules with absolute subservience from his minions. He is the supreme leader. He is an idol of the people. His wishes are his people's commands. All the years of absolutism contributes to his feeling of being infallible. That in  turn numbs his mind and thought process.

Darwin's evolution theory has proven that when any particular  biological or physical  mechanism is not used or needed for some time, it will soon disappear from the being. That is true with the oppressor. Soon, he ceases from being a thinking creature.

All that matters to him is the untold power which he wields. And the idolatry which he enjoys.

Thus the  legitimisation of his acts is actually unnecessary. It is not a rational act. Or a rationalisation process. There is no need for such process. Because at the end of the day, all that matters to the oppressor is the achievement of a goal. And that is already assured and ensured. Not much care is then needed in the process of legitimisation.

Being so, when an oppressor tries to legitimise his oppression through rhetoric, it often sounds curious and ridiculous to the reasonable people. Needless to say, they often fall flat.

Eco, in his work, gives us a classic "pseudorhetoric of oppression" in the form of Phaedrus' fable of the wolf and the lamb.

In the tale, a thirsty wolf and a lamb came to a stream. The wolf was drinking upstream and the lamb was downstream. The wolf, ever the oppressor that he was, sought to start a quarrel.

"Why are you muddying the water I am drinking?", said the wolf.

If we stopped here, we could see the utter ridiculousness of the would-be oppressor's starting line. How could the lamb, who was downstream, muddy the water which the wolf was drinking upstream? But the wolf, as with any oppressor, does not care about reasonableness of arguments. Reasonableness is only for the weak.

The lamb, however, represents a picture of reasonableness, when he sought to rationalise with the wolf. He answered, "I am sorry, but how could I do that? I am drinking the water that has passed you first."

That is a polite answer. It is also an answer which any sensible member of a civilised society would offer to the oppressor's rhetoric. Faced with such sensible - and probably irrefutable - rebuttal, the wolf changes the goal post and employs another line of attack.

"Six months ago, you talked about me behind my back," charged the wolf.

To the reasonable mind, this is something which is totally unrelated to the first line of attack. It reflects the oppressor's inability to engage in any meaningful debate about a stand taken by him. When faced with such situation, the oppressor would create a new attack in a reckless manner.

The recklessness in the oppressor's reply shows when the lamb said, "but I wasn't even born yet six month ago!".

Again, the oppressor's inability is exposed. He is shamed but not ashamed. That is due to the power which he wields and the obvious differences in physical prowess between the oppressor and the oppressed. The wolf would again change his charge.

The wolf, this time with impatience, said, "by Hercules, then it was your father who spoke badly of me."

With that statement, the wolf pounced on the lamb, killing it before eating it up.

How frightening!

Regardless of the simplicity of the tale, the reflection of the oppressor's mind and how it works in that tale is paralysingly frightening. The almost nonchalant attitude towards the exercise of extreme power by the strong and mighty over the weak and meek is symptomatic of any oppression.

Throughout the Malay classical literature, we could see for example,  the child Hang Nadim, who saved Temasek from the dreaded "ikan todak" (sword fish"), being executed for being too smart and therefore a possible threat to the Sultan. When Hang Tuah was perceived as being favoured by the Sultan more than any others, he was accused to have partied with the Sultan's "gundek" (concubine) and he was sentenced to death.

In not too far a time before, for some reason or other, the regime wanted Tun Salleh, the Lord President,  be sacked. That was the opening line as provided by the wolf. To which, Tun Salleh asked, "why?"

The answer was, "because you have signed a resignation letter."

The reply was, "but I have changed my mind, because I was under pressure."

The final rebuttal, before Tun Salleh was dismissed was, "you have to resign because you have abused your power by bring your son to the authority to request a fishery license. You also have to be sacked because you promote Islam and Islamisation in your judgments and speeches."

The utter ridiculousness and unreasonableness of the rhetoric did not matter. Because the oppressor had no ability to rationalise. Nor did he see the need to do so.

Later, Anwar Ibrahim had to go as the DPM.

"What did I do?", asked Anwar. That was the sensible and reasonable lamb asking the wolf who was starting a fight.

Just like the wolf accusing  the lamb of bad mouthing him six months ago, Anwar was told that he had to go because he had committed sodomy.

The lamb, in the fable above said he wasn't even born yet six months ago.

Anwar,  said "but the apartment in which I was to have committed sodomy wasn't even completed yet at the time you said I committed sodomy!"

Notice the uncanny similarities between the fable and the event which had actually happened?

Faced with that, the oppressor changed his story, just like the wolf. "Okay, but you did commit sodomy at that place on a different date. And I have the mattress too."

With that, the lamb was pounced on, killed and eaten up.

Contemporary Malaysia is filled with stories of oppression and denied justice. The rhetoric of oppression has been perfected and repeated to utter death.

"You are too noisy and please shut up," said the wolf.

"What have I done?", asked the people.

"You have insulted Islam and are a threat to national security," came the answer.

Or, "you have to be detained for your own safety," came the mind-numbingly curious answer.

I could go on and on. But I would just sound like a horribly scratched CD.

The question is, what is the lamb going to do about it?


What is the lamb going to do about it?

* Based on Umberto Eco's "The Wolf and the Lamb - The Rhetoric of Oppression" (Turning Back The Clock, Harvill Secker, 2007).


LAT said...

From now onwards even "The Silence Lamb" can roar like "The Lion King" !

Cruzeiro said...

I've been saying (like as though everyone with some common sense hasn't) for a long time - it is plain futile to attempt reason with Umno/Mahathirists.

It is their plan (unwittingly or by design) to create a mentally handicapped citizenry through their policies of subjugation. To them, Power is everything- and it is supposed to generate more power... not empower citizens.

The only way things can change for the better, is through the death of Mahathirism/Umno Baru piracy-politics - and they can only be forced out of power.
As far as they're concerned, Democracy is just a tool for legitimacy on the global stage- for their piracy.

Anonymous said...

The 'Lamb' cannot do anything about it but combined the
'Lambs' can, they should combine in the thousands and stampede the wolf assuming they cannot find a sheperd to protect them.
The playground bully is usually all brawn and no brain but as brawny as he is , he would surely be trounced if all the kids ganged up on him.
My late grandma used to share an old Bengali proverb that goes " A donkey will never drink clear water, it will muddy it first".
Perhaps the lamb/s should find one such donkey and do it a favor, and in return ask the donkey to give the wolf a good swift kick in the behind.
What I am saying is allies come in the strangest and most unexpected forms.

Vijay Kumar Murugavell

tupingera said...

the pathetic rhetoric of a mentally-retarded oppressor:

malaysia democracy what....every 5 year we got erection.

Musafir said...

Dear Art,

What is the lamb going to do about it?

I'm not sure about the lambs around me but I am cobra...just taking some time off to sharpen my fangs and stock pile my venom. Just to make sure the wolves around me go straight to Hell when I bite them..

pinsysu said...

the lamb will now cease to be a vegetarian & change its diet to eating wolf meat ...

and the bodohland will never, ever, be the same again!

PRAY,IT WORKS. joe's blog said...

So we need good people, good leaders to awake the rakyat of their subjugation. Where are they? No one can stand up to Umno/Mahathirists? Is malaysia doomed after all the blood, sweat and tears since 1957?

IsOn said...

Hehe... you got that connotation rightly Art. Keep on writing and God bless you.

Anonymous said...

Kinda depressing to imagine that we are all lambs waiting to be eaten. I'll start praying for the wolf who started all this to roll over and die .. hopefully it will cause the rest of the pack to implode.

Anonymous said...

mahatir must be cringing.

how can a smart person exposed the oldman naked? wolf or no wolf, this oldman is only for the money and the family has plenty now.

Anonymous said...

Yes, Art....what is the lamb going to do about it?

What is your answer? We are all in the same herd.


Frances said...

"Darwin's evolution theory has proven that when any particular biological or physical mechanism is not used or needed for some time, it will soon disappear from the being."

Case in point : Nazri Aziz's brain.


"What is the lamb going to do about it?"

The lamb, by excellent governance in lamb-ruled states, achieves such stunning results in the next General Election that not even the wolf's vote-tampering machinery can ensure victory. The lamb and his flock march victorious into Putrajaya (except that they don't, because marching is not part of the culture of Malaysia, kebanggaan Planet Bumi) and a glorious new day dawns for Malaysian democracy.

Or, you know, the lamb quietly excuses itself, comes back with a Bazooka and blows the wolf's motherfucking head off. I'm not picky.

Anonymous said...

Dear Art,

The lamb should use trap (election?) or gang up with more lambs (people power?) to corner the wolf.

The best part is how to treat the wolf once it is subdued.

May i suggest:
1) Pluck out the wolf's all rotten teeth (police, MACC, etc.??)
2) Pluck the wolf's hair 1 by 1 (ill-gotten gains?) till there is no hair left.
3) Give a few hard kick to the wolf's genital to make him sober & rational (judiciary, policies, governance etc.)
4) Keep the wolf to conter-check before another lamb may slowly becoming another wolf.

Thank you.


A Fellow Lawyer Whom You Know said...


One of your blog posts has been referenced here. A pity you didn't do it in Malay.

alwaysfair said...

As I read I was thinking of the poor lamb TBH who was pounced upon by the wolf and killed & despite there being evidence of the wolf's tooth marks the wolf kept saying he is just a watchdog.

It is not easy to defeat the wolf because he is very cunning and try his best to sabotage any assembling of the lambs to defeat him. Worse still some lambs were convinced to grow long grey hair and convert into wolves because together they can plunder some lambs and have nice evening lamb barbeques. That is why the lambs have to try very very hard to recruit more lambs.

stella said...

what can the lamb do?

combine lambs & all others who are being oppressed by the wolf. practice self defence and body combat. kill the wolf!

Jahamy said...


It is called "mental simulation software"....the powers that input illogical but emotionally powerful ideas into the lambs heads. After that the lambs simulate the "model of fear and helplessness" by themselves...so the lone lamb that asks the reasonable question gets gobbled up.....thus reinforcing the other lamb's fear model.

The other will lambs will occasionally bleat...very mildly.

Peace !

Richard Loh said...

Najib had given his minister the KPI, what about him, who is going to grade him.

Take this poll:

How would you grade the PM's KPI (key performance index) during his 1 year in office.

donplaypuks® said...

The silence of the lambs is no more. Hannibal Lecter shall rise to feed on the carcasses of the wolves!!

dpp aka wolverine
We are all of 1 race, the Human Race

Anonymous said...

At times I feel our country's future is lost and nobody can do anything to save it from the treacherous wolfs in lambs' clothing. However, your writing Sir, is very refreshing to the soul. May God bless you, sir. Keep up the good work. I enjoy your writing very much. Thank you.

walk_on_water said...

I like lamb chop.